Border conflict escalates as Costa Rica accuses Nicaragua of excavating two more canals in Isla Portillos

Diplomatic relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua reached a new low Tuesday, as Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo accused Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government of excavating two new canals in Costa Rican territory – an act Costa Rica says is in direct violation of a ruling by the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

Speaking at a press event at the Casa Presidencial in San José, Castillo said the alleged excavation by members of Nicaragua’s military came to Costa Rica’s attention on Sept. 5, when a satellite photo showed the newly excavated canals connecting the San Juan River with the Caribbean.

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said the work shows Nicaragua’s “flagrant disrespect” of international law, adding that relations between the two countries had “deteriorated” significantly.

Isla Portillos aerial

A satellite photo of the disputed Isla Portillos showing the locations of the new alleged canals (top left in red), the Sandinista youth camp (“Campamento,” center) along the San Juan River, and the 2010 canal connecting Los Portillos Lagoon with the Río San Juan (bottom center in red). Courtesy of Casa Presidencial

In response to the alleged invasion, Costa Rica presented a letter of protest to the Nicaraguan Embassy in San José on Tuesday morning at 10:30 a.m. demanding the immediate cessation of any construction and an explanation.

Repeated calls to the Nicaraguan Embassy in San José by The Tico Times went unanswered by the time this article was posted.

In October 2010, Nicaraguan troops occupied part of Isla Portillos, also known as Isla Calero, as part of an effort to dredge a canal between the San Juan River and the Los Portillos Lagoon, near Costa Rica’s northeastern Caribbean coast. Isla Portillos is a protected wetland under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

In an attempt to remove the Nicaraguan forces, Costa Rica appealed to the world court, and in March 2011, the court issued a decision forbidding civilians, military personnel or police from either country to enter the disputed wetlands.

Former guerrilla leader Edén “Comandante Cero” Pastora, who oversaw the dredging of the San Juan River for Nicaragua in 2010 that ignited the diplomatic crisis, denied Costa Rica’s most recent allegations, reported ACAN-EFE in the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa.

Costa Rica requested bilateral meetings next week with the world court president and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, which opened on Tuesday.

Costa Rican Environment Vice Minister Ana Lorena Guevara said during Tuesday’s press conference that the ministry would send a team of biologists and other personnel to the wetland to assess any environmental damage.

Evidence collected by the team will be presented as part of an accusation before the Secretary of the Ramsar Convention.

Dredge at Isla Portillo

A dregding vessel flying the Nicaraguan flag in Isla Portillos photographed by the Costa Rican intelligence agency, DIS, in September. Courtesy of Casa Presidencial

Guevara said that under the world court’s ruling only Environment Ministry (MINAE) personnel were allowed to enter Isla Portillos, a protected area under Costa Rican law. According to a statement from Casa Presidencial, the International Court of Justice, the Secretary of the Ramsar Convention and Nicaragua were all informed of the mission. 

Public Security Vice Minister Celso Gamboa added that the team would enter the territory unaccompanied by Costa Rican police forces, suggesting that any additional protection would violate the court’s ruling.

According to Guevara, past MINAE missions to the wetland were met with threats from the Nicaraguan forces there.

This is the latest in a growing list of offenses between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. In August, Ortega ruffled feathers here when he floated the idea of “reclaiming” the northwestern Costa Rican province of Guanacaste with the help of the world court.

In July, Costa Rica accused Nicaragua of trying to sell oil concessions in its Pacific and Caribbean waters.

That same month, the court ruled that a Nicaraguan camp built in 2011 in Isla Portillos for members of the Sandinista Youth Brigade, an organization affiliated with Ortega’s ruling Sandinista party, exacerbated the conflict.